Divorce in the Public Library

The battle for branch libraries took to the streets in 2006.  Photo: courtesy of the Providence Journal/Glenn Osmundson

Linda Kushner, resident of Providence, lawyer, and former Rhode Island politician, has written a book, The Fight That Saved the Libraries: A True Rhode Island Story, being published in May.  It chronicles the split between the Providence Public Library (PPL) and what became the Community Libraries of Providence (CLPVD),  formerly The Community Library of Providence (CLP), a divorce that users of Providence libraries today probably know little about.

Kushner writes the story of the split that played out publicly over more than five years, chronicling a relationship in need of help, the efforts to improve it, multiple impasses, charges of bad faith, arguments over money and property, numerous committees and reports, to finally a breaking point, and then the challenge of taking care of the dependent “kids,” nine libraries.  However, Kushner assures her reader in the introduction that there will be “a happy ending” to a David and Goliath situation.

Providence Public Library at the turn of the century, at a highpoint of Providence’s economic history.

The story is personal, she says, “a memoir, not a scholarly study.”  Kushner’s narrative covers the emotions of a tiny group as they lobbied for reforms in the public library.  She chronicles every step of determination, frustration, and what she calls “anger and rancor.”  The divorce was complex.  First, the Providence Public Library, located downtown in its turn-of-the-century beautifully historic building and founded as an independent institution, became early on a marriage of public and private interests.  Over the twentieth century, PPL took on neighborhood libraries and depended on city funds to support them.  So when PPL threatened to close neighborhood libraries for lack of enough city support, Kushner’s group organized on behalf of the “public” in PPL.  It confronted both PPL and the third person in the marriage, the city.

The “happy” part of the book is the success of a small group of activists who saved all the neighborhood libraries. They argued in public, finally broke with PPL, and secured support from the city, against all odds, for their plan to take over nine libraries.  Fifteen years later, CLPVD is the largest library system in the state, maintaining buildings and programs across the city’s diverse neighborhoods.  Today PPL and CLPVD partner on many levels even as they define their separate missions.

Smith Hill Library, built in 1932.

As early as 1992, PPL threatened to close the small Smith Hill branch, which remained open only after a court order.  By 2004, PPL was asking for more money from Providence to keep the libraries open, threatening the cutting of services and closure of some branches.  Kushner had just left politics and had become President of the Friends of Rochambeau Library, one of several support groups for branch libraries.  Only then did she begin to understand what she saw as a contentious relationship between PPL and the various Friends groups: “I was surprised to learn that PPL was suspicious of our Friends group.  In fact, they were hostile to all Friends groups.”

Rochambeau Library on the East Side of Providence, built in 1930.

The foundering marriage of the central library of PPL and its nine neighborhood branches was manifest in plans to close branches in order to save the whole system.  Protesters marched in the streets between City Hall and the central library on Empire Street, where Kushner met Patricia Raub, a history professor and library user incensed about cuts proposed at the same time the library was using funds to refashion the entrance to the central library building.  Kushner and Raub eventually formed the Library Reform Group, in touch with activist Friends groups, who collectively spanned city neighborhoods. Kushner was from Rochambeau, Raub from Wanskuck, Mary Jones from Smith Hill, Maureen Romans from Mount Pleasant, and Sherri Griffin from Fox Point.  Where there were no Friends groups, other activists stepped in, like Debbie Schimberg and Rochelle Lee, from South Providence and Elmwood.

PPL was asking for more public money in 2004, and yet its own finances were not open to the public; the library was a private institution with closed meetings.  City funds were allocated to maintaining the branch libraries; funds supporting the central library were not public.  In the controversy, the fact that PPL had an endowment of $35,000,000 became public.

The endowment itself becomes a central part of Kushner’s book on several counts.  First, by definition.  An endowment fund is usually understood as money restricted to investment, allowing only the earnings to be spent. Defenders of the branches maintained that PPL surely had enough unrestricted money in the $35 million to address emergency maintenance and staffing.  Ellen Schwartz, who joined the Library Reform Group after her library, the Washington Park branch, was closed for lack of repairs, was an accountant who pursued the facts about PPL’s endowment, finding that much of the fund was not restricted when donated, but designated restricted by PPL itself.  Kushner argues that PPL “lumped gifts and savings with legally endowed funds and then held the entire amount sacrosanct, as though it was a legal endowment that could not be used for operating needs of any kind,” that is, maintenance of the branches.  Finally, in the split between PPL and its branches, the settlement left PPL with the entire endowment, even though gifts over the years had undoubtedly been given in the name of some of the branches.

At the time, however, there were more pressing issues than the endowment.  One of the first was the effort to require PPL to hold open meetings, a step that took legislation and then enforcement.  Even after applying the Rhode Island Open Records Law, PPL kept their financial discussions private until Kushner argued the library should be held to state law that determined that any group funded with over 50% public money must be transparent.  A second issue involved representation.  Kushner’s group wanted city, state, and neighborhood representation on the PPL board, which at the time was nearly all white and populated by many out-of-city members.  Without being seated, the public was allowed individual two-minute statements that were recorded but not discussed.  So rather than getting to a discussion of reforms, the reform group found itself battling layers of secrecy at PPL.

Washington Park Library, opened in 1950 in what was originally Hose 18 Fire Station.

Circular conflicts stretched into years–PPL threatened cuts and closures to justify increases in city funding, the city then negotiated, committees or special reports were made, and PPL usually got less than what they requested before the cycle started again.  In the meantime, repairs on the neighborhood libraries were not attended to, with Washington Park Library closed for several years because of a leaky roof.  Money for repairs did not seem to interest PPL.  Allen Shawn Feinstein at one point offered $100,000 to repair the roof.  PPL could also have sought grant money for the historic preservation of the library that was originally a fire station.  Neither was pursued.

In one final year, PPL and the city negotiated a contract that alarmed the reformers.  It allowed the fate of the branches to be in the hands of PPL, a decision to be made in the first six months of the contract.  The reformers immediately called a press conference, along with several city councilors.  They allied with groups who had supported their goals, and the City Council stipulated that the city could get out of the contract if they did not like PPL’s plan for the branches.  But in a sense, it was already too late.

Things came to a breaking point in 2009 when again PPL was ready to close five branches; “The branches PPL had put on the chopping block were, of course for the most part, located in the most underserved parts of the city communities with the lowest income and the greatest percentage of Black and brown residents.”  At that point, an idea that the reform group had said out loud years before, finally appeared to be the only answer: create a new non-profit entity to run the branches.  Mayor David Cicilline had been consistently reluctant to break the library system into pieces.  But he was also not interested in the city taking responsibility for running the branches either.  The reformers did their homework and wrote a proposal.

What follows then in Kushner’s book is the detailed unfolding of an audacious plan by the activists and reformers to run all nine libraries in the middle of the 2008-2009 Great Recession, without experience and with no money other than what the city was planning to give PPL to run the branches, an amount that PPL argued was inadequate.  Disentangling the central library from its branches proved a messy job the library reformers had not planned on.  Nor was it a plan PPL anticipated.  PPL owned some of the buildings and would not give them up without compensation, yet it denied responsibility for repairing them.  Although all nine neighborhood libraries opened in 2009 as the Community Library of Providence, a divorce court mentality prevailed for several more years.  Kushner’s happy ending is a victory built first on outrage, then stubborn dedication, relentless organization, and a certain amount of pluck.  The two library systems’ finances are completely separate today, perhaps one good reason to know Kushner’s history.

All proceeds from the sale of the book will go to Community Libraries of Providence.

This book tells one side of a story. It honors more heroes than those named in this review.  Instead of agreeing to plans for neighborhood loss, reformers fought for the “public” in public libraries across the city.  Among the nine branches of the PPL, Rochambeau Library, on the East Side, represents the most affluent neighborhood.  The group, however, chose not to make Rochambeau another central library with eight branches in less affluent areas.  All nine libraries became “community libraries,” attentive to the needs of their parts of the city.  Kushner’s book renders the success personal, a tale told by someone who unexpectedly became a “mother of a library system.”  Kushner’s book tells a tale, for a change, of not being silenced or defeated by the powers-that-be, of working hard to garner public support and getting it, of speaking up for the underdog or the underserved, and savoring long-term victory against all odds.

One of the first stories published in The Providence Eye, September 13, 2023, dealt with the two library systems.  See Providence Libraries Seeing Double.

Patricia Raub has published two articles on the history of Providence libraries:

“‘A Bewildering Variety’”: The Beginning of Libraries in Providence,” Rhode Island History 79, no.1 (Fall 2021): 55-87.

“Branching Out: Opening Local Libraries in Providence Neighborhoods, 1879s-1932,” Rhode Island History 80, no.2 (Spring 2023): 108-144.

Raub’s third part of local library history, one dealing with the two systems, is due to be published soon.   “Saving Providence Public Library: Financial Crises and Community Activism,” forthcoming in Libraries: Culture, History, and Society, an American Library publication.

Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator who came to Providence from the South for graduate school. She has a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University, having taught students from eighth grade to graduate school. She is active in the Friends of Knight Memorial Library, The Community Library of Providence, and lives in Elmwood.